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Six Ways To Improve Doctors’ Waiting Rooms

Spanish design consultancy Fuelfor shows how better design can reduce patients’ anxiety while they wait (and wait and wait) at the doctor’s office.

Six Ways To Improve Doctors’ Waiting Rooms

Waiting endlessly in a doctor’s office ranks up there as one of life’s premier annoyances, right alongside queuing up at the DMV and getting manhandled at airport security. Short of overhauling our overstretched health care system, though, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Luckily, design can make it a hell of a lot more tolerable.

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So suggests Fuelfor, a Spanish design consultancy, which compiled a case study on “Rethinking the waiting room.” Research has shown that a well-designed waiting room — one that includes everything from comfortable chairs to clear signage to easy-to-use patient response forms — can bolster how patients feel about the care they receive and even streamline the care process itself. Fuelfor has identified six ways of dramatically improving waiting rooms. We’ve summarized them below:

Comfortable seating
Waiting when you’re sick is bad enough. Waiting in a crappy chair when you’re sick is downright galling. What’s more, what’s comfortable for one patient might be deeply uncomfortable, or even painful, for another. Fuelfor proposes a modular seating system, called MODU, that can be adapted to different offices and individuals. Movable armrests and seating pads with various amounts of cushion let people create their own little comfort zone. Planters keep the air feeling fresh and displays at the end of each bench apprise patients of their wait time. Acoustic separators eke out space for private phone calls.

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Manageable queues
“Queue management displays in waiting rooms make people feel physically tied to one spot,” Fuelfor writes. Taking a number isn’t much better — it’s impersonal and disposable (not unlike your average doctor’s appointment). Fuelfor’s solution: feature wait-time displays prominently in multiple places, not just over the central counter. People who don’t want to hang around the waiting room can download Inline, a conceptual iPhone app that reveals their number in the queue with a clear, simple interface. It also lets patients book appointments, locate the room of their appointment, and track medications, among other health-management features.

Clear medical records
More and more, medical records are going digital, but Fuelfor suggests a low-tech alternative to ensure that people can simply and viscerally manage their own health. With FOLIO, patients store their medications and appointment dates in paper wallets that be thrown in a purse or back pocket and carted easily to the doctor’s office. At the office, they use the FOLIO info to fill out “Prepare,” a patient-response form that asks simple questions in a clear format designed to prevent mistakes. After the appointment, doctors fill out a separate “Remember” form that includes prescriptions and other health advice. It might sound like a lot of paperwork, but with good graphic design, it can actually feel pretty simple.

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Healthy food
It’s always hilarious (in a depressing way) to see vending machines full of chips, candy, and soda at medical clinics that are supposed to be billboards for healthy living. Fuelfor conceived of a vending machine that dispenses water, apples, and other nutritious snacks while you wait. It’s even designed like a kitchen counter to emphasize the idea that smart eating starts at home.

Welcoming signage
Doctors’ waiting rooms can feel terribly impersonal and bureaucratic. To inject a modicum of humanity, Fuelfor recommends throwing up welcome boards that introduce the doctors on duty (complete with portraits, so they aren’t just faceless names) and post information about healthy activities and classes, like yoga for seniors and cooking lessons.

Communal space
Fuelfor says that communal tables can help reduce patients’ anxiety in a waiting room. We’re not totally sold on this one. People like privacy. Especially sick people. Then again, if you’re at the doctor’s office with your family, a large table where you can gather and discuss sensitive medical problems makes a lot of sense. It could also figure prominently during medical consultations (just as long as it isn’t, you know, too communal). Think about it: Instead of parking it on an examination table while your doctor dispenses advice that you can’t even pay attention to because you feel so awkward in your ridiculous little gown, you could meet at a big, roomy table — clothes on, dignity intact.

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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